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Racism, Crime, and America's Faith in Punishment and Violence

02/09/2015 02:19 pm ET | Updated Apr 09, 2015

Whether it's our response to terrorism abroad or to crime at home, we as Americans deeply believe in state violence. It leads us to justify torture in Guantanamo or tear-gassing protestors in our nation's streets by militarized police as a "necessity." This narrative of "redemptive violence," as the late Walter Wink called it, is repeatedly depicted in our blockbuster movies, which continually rehearse that the way to stop evil is with massive fire power. In guns we trust.

As Christians we are called to another way. We are called to the way of restoration not retaliation. We are called to "love our enemies" as Jesus said. That does not mean neglecting to care for and keep safe those we love. Enemy-love is not about what we don't do, but about what we do to effectively resolve conflict, reduce violence, and work towards healing and restoration for everyone involved. Enemy-love, understood in this way, is thus intensely practical, and at the same time, it is a way that is deeply foreign to our American culture entrenched in its deep belief in retaliation and punishment as the way to fight evil.

Consider our prison system. As Michelle Alexander powerfully unveils in her book The New Jim Crow, mass incarceration in the U.S. has grown at an alarming rate, going from 350,000 people in the 1970s to 2 million people in this century and 60 million people with criminal records that bars them from the right to vote, serve on a jury, or be free from discrimination in employment, housing, education, and public benefits. The overwhelming majority of those people are poor and people of color, incarcerated or branded for life (the significance of that metaphor is not lost on me) for nonviolent offenses such as drug possession.

In the July 2014 cover story of Sojourners Magazine, Alexander identifies the core of the problem,

"The quintupling of our prison population in a few short decades and the relegation of tens of millions of people to a permanent second-class status is a reflection of the fact that we in the United States are captive to a 'spirit of punishment'."

Rather than approaching crime from the perspective of restorative justice and public health, seeking to help people to reform and re-integrate, our country has instead not only continued in a model of punishment that can only be described as "medieval", but has grown it to a scale unprecedented in world history.

It is not only the convicted that pay the price for this. The sad fact is that our current prison system has become a factory for hardening inmates rather than healing them, and that means that when they are released they are often not reformed, but in fact worse. Locking someone up in the hell of prison life naturally breeds violence, not reform or repentance. People do not learn empathy by being shamed and dehumanized.

We know what the alternative looks like. It involves, as Alexander outlines, shifting from a punitive criminal model to a public health model for dealing with drug addiction and abuse. In involves abolishing legal discrimination against people with criminal records--discrimination that denies them basic human rights to work, shelter, education, and food. It involves restorative, rehabilitative, and transformative models of justice that take seriously the interests of the victim, the offender, and the community as a whole.

A major roadblock to this is the tendency to otherize and dehumanize convicts, which all too often translates into dehumanizing people of color as a whole. So while reforming our prison system from the perspective of self-interest and economic concern, in the end this comes down to an issue of enemy-love.

Let me unpack that a bit. Jesus' call to "love our enemies" is intentionally paradoxical: Love those you hate is about as counter-intuitive as you can get. We do have enemies -- those we hate, condemn, and fear. These are commonly those who have harmed, violated, or oppressed us, and our inclination is to seek to retaliate and dehumanize them. Jesus is proposing that we re-humanize those we are inclined to dehumanize and condemn, and that we do so by acting for their good. The paradoxical call to "love our enemies" is thus intended to jar us out of a self-focused and reactionary mindset, and into a radical change in perspective -- recognizing the humanity in those we are inclined to dehumanize, and showing care for those we are inclined to seek to harm in the name of "justice".

Enemy-love is thus about expanding our social borders until there is no one we would call "other" and there is only "us" together. It is a recognition that as social beings the way we treat the one we label as "other" reflects on us all, and impacts us all as well. This would entail an ethic of compassion and concern for the good of every human being, regardless of their class, race, nationality, or religion. Alexander writes,

"The evil of these systems lies not in their cost, inefficiency, or impracticality. The evil lies in the belief that some of us are disposable, unworthy of care, compassion, or concern. And until we challenge that core belief, systems of racial and social control will continue to be born and thrive in this country for a long, long time."

The restorative and rehabilitative models of justice and public health approaches outlined above coincide with our best understandings of mental health and social science. They represent an approach that has been shown to be effective over and over again.

In short, we know what works, we know how to help, but this ultimately needs to involve moving from a focus on self-interest characterized by a "spirit of punishment" and violence that so deeply characterizes us as a nation, to a focus on compassion -- recognizing the humanity in the other, and recognizing how such a social perspective is good for all of us.

That's what enemy-love looks like. That's the kingdom of God. It's a language that we deeply need to become literate in.

Derek Flood is the author of Disarming Scripture and Healing the Gospel. Follow Derek on Twitter @theRebelGod and on Facebook